“Interview”: Ben Segal Talks to WORKS Author Grant Maierhofer

Grant Maierhofer’s Works collects four separate books into a sprawling volume that functions simultaneously as a compendium and a bildungsroman, showing a range of work and the development of a singular writer through various stages of literary production. I initially planned a to write a conventional review the book, but I prefer conversation to critical mastery, and Maierhofer was generous enough to not only let me interview him about his work (and his Works), but to write these very telling and insightful serious responses to my questions. So think of this is a small part of a larger conversation about, through, and around a book that deserves and generates critical discussion in and beyond itself. 

Maierhofer is the author of Clog, Gag, Flamingos, Postures, and more. His work is available via Egress, 3AM, LIT, and elsewhere.

Ben Segal: I’m interested in the role that criticism and framing play in the book. Each text in Works has its own introduction, and the book as a whole has an introduction and an afterwards. Many of these framing texts are written by notable contemporary writers and those names alone serve to situate the work in important ways. I also think that there’s a way to read the book as if the various critical texts are all written by you and then placed under the various notable names, so that Works could be read as a Pale Fire-like metafiction as well as an omnibus. I’m wondering of you could talk a little about the role of critical framing in assembling Works and how these critical texts stitch the whole together as a “work” even as the separate texts stand independently.

Grant Maierhofer: I like the idea of there being sort of multiple wholes that this book could amount to. The shape it wound up in is sort of both the story of working with the press on putting it all together, as well as the stories of its contents and any previous publication history there might’ve been. I think as it started to grow there was an anxiety about how connected it could all be kept, and that would’ve been one of the initial reasons we considered looking around for some introductory stuff and the like. I think I first settled with the publisher with the book as a story collection, and then maybe containing that and Postures, and then that and Flamingos, at which point we considered doing a tête-bêche edition where a few books would be flipped like Jeff Jackson’s recent book, and then we talked about doing multiple volumes of smaller, simpler editions that people could either purchase in part or as a whole with some sort of container for it all, and finally after retitling and adding and inquiring with writers I’ve long admired and reworking things to a satisfactory state we wound up with Works. Although the title does refer to its state as a sort of omnibus, I felt very stupid imposing that sort of thing on my own little pissant books, which is why I kept it “Works,” and nothing further, because Jesus Christ, who am I? There’s still a twinge of internal blah that comes when that aspect of its title crosses my mind, but compared with three or four volumes all subtitled and whatnot, I vastly prefer this. These are old works, mostly, and their publication histories were so scattered and chaotic that I wasn’t even fully aware whether some were in print as the thing was being put back together. Finding out they were fair game it just seemed, fuck it, let’s cram all these dumb things together and see what’s what. I’m going to die eventually after all, and there are moments within the lot of these I’d like to at least have as up-to-date as I’m able while I’m still around.

The criticism question is doubly interesting because it was also my first real foothold in terms of getting anywhere with writing. First I did a column sort of thing giving weekly looks at things for a now-defunct website, and then wrote more typical book reviews, and even worked at a little college weekly reviewing movies for a bit. The fact that most writers do have to typically review the works of others before figuring out what in the hell they’re going to do to get their own work out there is a bit troublesome. I tend to recommend it to people getting started because some variation of it worked for me, and you get free books, and whatever else, but it’s also like, you wrote a novel, that’s plenty, go have a rest dumbass. I’m hesitant to lump all I hate into the notion of “capitalism” but it probably applies here. And Jesus Christ, you’re not going to make a living at either thing, maybe ever, so what the hell? I guess I like the notion of someone devoting their life to criticism and criticism alone, and there’s a part of me that still wishes that’s all I’d ever aspired toward, because I can find the things I’d like to express scattered across the works of others mostly anyway, but that thing that gets into your head and results in a desire to put something out there for all the fuckups that share your state can prove addictive. Elizabeth Young, the British critic, is an ideal I wish could be attained today by anyone trying to write. Maybe in other countries it’s feasible, I can only speak for the states, but it appears that whatever you do, regardless of how much of it you’re prepared to do—Christ, look at Mike Corrao, a literal machine both as critic and a writer in his own right—you’re still going to need to do more in some other way. So anxiety fed the ornamentation of Works, as well as this fondness I’ve had for certain books that situated critique alongside the work—the best, the very very best iteration of this, to me, has to be the old Grove mass market paperbacks of Sade. I picked those up because Dennis Cooper mentioned them and the Paulhan essay, the Blanchot, I think one even includes Simone de Beauvoir’s entire “Must We Burn Sade?” they reward engagement so thoroughly, and their size, and their smell, they’re just beautiful books, and if Works could ever be thought of as even a distant forgotten long-buried cousin of those books, it would be a dream; and as with them I’m just a massive fan of all who wrote supplementary material for Works, so at least I’ve got something to read in my own book if I’m ever trapped in a storm.

BS: The book has a lot of bleach in it. I have some ideas about how bleach functions on various affective and associational registers (as sanitizer, eraser, trace, etc.), but am wondering if you could say a little more about why that word/agent crops up so frequently and how you think of it as a tie between various stories.

GM: I think my first positive association with the word or substance bleach would’ve been with Nirvana, and although it’s sort of blah to start there I think they do represent a lot that I respond to in art and in the lives of artists and I think the mix of what they became and the early messiness on that record has proven so beautiful in retrospect. My older brother’s band covered “Negative Creep” at various basement shows and their guitarist sang it and he always seemed to embody this ideal of punk and frustration. Bleach became interesting again when my interest in various niche clothing companies utilized bleach in their process—I think Blackmeans from Japan has, and then Alexander Heir and his company Death Traitors—and then too Lutz’s book Partial List of People to Bleach I think has to have one of the greatest titles of anything ever, especially how it evinces this narrator wandering around randomly bleaching people and what that could even mean. People do bleach tie dye too which strikes me as kind of beautiful, and then like bleaching Levi’s and various subcultures that’ve done that, and then Death Grips, on “Birds,” I think it is anyway, the line “drink this bleach,” which had a wonderful energy to it before COVID hit I guess, and Trump and whatever. I won’t let that ruin bleach entirely though. At one point the book was called Bleach Book, which is a beautiful title to me, and anybody is welcome to it because I already failed to go forward with it, it just seemed like Works was a bit better fitting and maybe in some backwards way a more modest title, which seems nice. In the book there’s bleach as a cleansing tool, and I like it as a kind of short hand for this hybrid thing of angst, cities, fashion, violence, I guess maybe there’s a synecdoche with it, this literal substance that’s also an album that also ties to books that’s also someways worn. Don’t drink it really, of course, don’t do that. I was trying too to think of something similar, and it’s kind of difficult. Spraypaint maybe? But even that feels sorta blah.

BS: The first blurb on the back of the book is from Gari Lutz, and obviously you share an interest in the strange and perfect sentence. Lutz has an essay in which she writes about “consecution”—which has to do with allowing the letters and words kind of guide the writer to the next word by recomposing themselves in mutating strings through a sentence. I’ve thought of it as loosely related to Oulipian constraint, but intuitive rather than mathematical. In any case, I’m really curious about the extent to which language-as-material guides your writing. More specifically, do you ever let the story be led by the language into unexpected places?

GM: I think, to my mind, Lutz represents the best distillation of what Gordon Lish was able to accomplish in his teaching. I think I read a bit of Lutz before knowing much about the whole Lish scene but having waded into that, and found others doing fascinating things, it feels like Lutz responded so perfectly to that inclination and she’s assembled one of the most important bodies of work in American fiction, basically ever. When I started writing I was newly sober, and still a teenager, and feeling all sorts of fucked up and ill-equipped to deal with life. I read some stuff that really meant a lot to me—Hell’s Angels and others by Thompson, Narcissus and Goldmund, The Place of Dead Roads and Journal of a Solitude were all standouts, as was American Psycho—and all I knew about them was I felt moved on reading them. I didn’t think about language. I didn’t pick anything apart enough to gather any sense of how it was arrived at, I just knew that I loved reading them, and that they legitimized a lot of feelings I was having in response to a bizarre life I hadn’t previously thought much about beyond idly thinking I’d probably die by the time I was twenty-one. I sat down, then, and just wrote. I thought of ideas, and then I just wrote, not thinking about anything, and the result was I wrote a lot of godawful stuff that felt horrific to edit, like physically painful to look at again because I didn’t understand fully what writing was. With time, and work, and more cringeing through the editing process, it became apparent that language was something I needed to heed. The first thing I wrote while thinking this way was called “Bach-Mani-Brahms,” and I let the language guide the thing. I persisted in trying to publish older stuff because I’d tried to do something in writing them, and some were published, to my everlasting shame, but Tobias Wolff published a book he’s ashamed of, as did Pasolini—or rather disowned the Trilogy of Life, which happens to be my favorite of his stuff, and maybe as a whole my favorite films ever—as did Hawthorne and a bunch of others, at least that’s what I tell myself.

Anyway, I continued pursuing language as an end in itself, and I continued to read, and eventually I arrived at figures like Lutz who seemed to be doing this at a level akin to watching Michelangelo or Scott Ross entirely in their element. The theoretical side of it was appealing too, this idea that language was a construction, sort of a fiction in its way, and so writing something that operated first and always keyed into the language of it seemed a sort of higher calling. The problem, I’ve realized, is it can dry up much of what might make someone first love reading or writing—at least for me—and so a balance is needed. I think probably first and foremost about language when I’m writing anything, as it can tend to guide me and make whatever I’m trying to do feel intended and purposeful, but I also try and embrace the messiness of things, which seems to balance out a bit. The formal strangeness of my Inside the Castle books is a good example of this sought-after balance, although a lot of what makes any of that anything significant is the work John Trefry has done on them. The pure language stuff might be close to harsh noise music, where there are examples of that being incredibly fulfilling for both maker and listener, but I’m more interested in what a stretch of intense, violent noise can do when even the loosest song structure is there to help it cohere. That way maybe someone will wander in, and they may arrive at the same place as the diehard fan, but otherwise they don’t share a great deal in common. That’s more powerful to me, more human and I think more beautiful.

BS: You seem very interested in leading and following, or in how small kinds of community crop up around or in the wake of shared trauma and charismatic individuals. Are you suspicious of community? Can there by group identity without hierarchy? Maybe this is a question about influence—literary, chemical, or personal—and your apparent fascination and caution regarding influence of any kind? Is there a homology between cults/subcultures/therapeutic communities that you want to explore?

GM: This is fascinating to think about. I think that when I started writing I sort of pushed my way into a very secure, angry container, and at the time it felt right. I was mad, and confused, and having a powerful response to the art I was engaging with. I went to movies alone and then walked around talking to myself for much of the day. I think that was necessary, but when I started to open up to the world, and engage with people interested in similar things, it was clear that I needed to do away with that solitude and continue, I guess, growing somehow in the process. It probably started with HTMLGIANT, and Dennis Cooper’s blog, and it just felt so amazing to feel vindicated in my pursuit. That’s mostly where I’m at in terms of these things in my actual life. In the writing I think it started in part via starting to write in rehab. It was plainly clear to me that I needed to sober up, or I would either die or so completely fuck up my life as to make death preferable. It was also plainly clear that the parameters of AA, or NA, wouldn’t totally address the smattering of feelings and thoughts I was having. Therapy, then, and medication, but I still wanted to walk around vomiting on everyone and torturing myself in public. Writing, then, or I guess first just art, this thing I’d started thinking about, and these things I wanted to say, and this stuff I wanted to take in. The subject matter was autobiographical, then, but has hopefully grown a bit to push past my own life to ask slightly larger questions about help, and recovery, and medicine, and addiction, because I do think that writing and art are positioned to respond to these things slightly better than pure academics or even devout religious belief. Those things can help and they absolutely do, but art has seemed better-suited to engage the mess of living, and that’s what draws me in.

I do feel compelled to write about the possible overlap between these things, be it punk and clothing, or the colifata and Pharmakon shows, or cognitive behavioral therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous, because at some level these strike me as language-based things, or literary things, and thus writing is possibly ideally-positioned to interrogate the story of the recovering person, or the victim, or the aggressor, or whatever else. Dennis Cooper sort of reached in and tore my head open somewhere along the way, and showed that writing was capable of containing an impossible amount of apparently abhorrent thoughts or deeds amid feelings of love, of worship, and not attempting to explain away either opting instead to let a person witness that mess, that unjustifiable sprawl of humanity, and the onus is then on them to exist.

BS: What kind of work does naming do in your book(s)? I’m thinking of the names in Flamingo that have associations attached to each and also work to structure the otherwise quite overlapping play of voices. I’m thinking also of the use of letters for names (as in Postures).

GM: In a project like Flamingos a name was as significant as anything else when it came to expressing some imagined individual placed within this imagined document that had its goals. Elsewhere I’ve probably been careless, or intentional, or hopeful when naming, but in that book for whatever reason those names came to do a lot of the heavy lifting for my internal sense of what they were going to do and say. Brian Evenson is probably my favorite namer currently writing—strange European names hacked up and put back together missing what they’d need in the work of any other writer—and he seems to represent maybe the inverse of someone like Pynchon, whose names are maybe more encyclopedic while Evenson’s seem spat from some blender of World War II scholarship and Delany’s stuff. With Flamingos it was Evenson, and with Postures it was this desire to strip things back, and probably pursue something on the order of Eat When You Feel Sad, where removing things can make things more interesting and when Evenson’s doing it it’s like he tossed you the text but cut a random corner off of the thing with a knife as it sailed over. Sorry, redundant, I just cannot say enough good things about Evenson’s naming. The Beckett is there, the Molloy influence. Naming someone in the SF story Klimt was blatant Evenson robbery. When he wrote his piece for the book he mentioned taking something from that story and doing his own thing with it so I can only hope it’s proven generative for him in turn. Naming is one tool we’ve got, and it’s probably either best thought of as a nifty puzzle, or some random bullshit you name the fake people in the fake story when that’s not part and parcel with your goals for the project. Flamingos may be the former and Postures the latter, though I’d struggle to talk about goals with any depth for that one now.

BS: In your answers to these questions, and throughout much of the book, there is a recurring interest in the idea of mess, of messiness, of falling apart and of trying in various ways to clean-up. There’s the serial killer in the title story from “Bleach” who seems drawn to kill in a brutal, messy fashion and then to clean obsessively, such that the two actions are not so much opposites as parts of a whole performance. Then there are other messes—personal/psychological messes, science fiction messes (fungal growth in the wrong places, spreading, needing cleaning). The last text in the book is about, among other things, a tremendous saw that cuts, destroys, messes. What is it about mess that seems so vital to you, so in need of both exploration and representation? Is bleach, in part, a theme because it leaves (in its smell, in its removal of color) a strong trace, a kind of evidence of a mess-that-has-been-sanitized? Is this order/mess relation reducible to the Oulipian “clinamen” or swerve—or maybe the inverse? Or, more simply, I’d like to close by asking if you want to say anything more about messes, especially messes in the context of Works.

GM: I do think that the practice of writing fiction, or really any kind of writing that I find myself interested in, is tied to this notion of messiness—regarding novels it’s often referred to as “shagginess” with books like Moby-Dick, or more contemporary stuff like The Tunnel, Infinite Jest, et al—and that the forms literature takes allow for a messiness where other mediums require a kind of coherence. Even in its messiest iterations—maybe Inherent Vice (the film) is a good example of one, or Magnolia more so, to name just one director—films require the incredible coherence of happening in about three hours or less. Even TV series need this coherence or people will just lose interest—something like The Killing (U.S.) stands out as one of few examples where a messiness is forgiven because of the quality. Novels can be insane, can be messy. Miss Macintosh, My Darling, or theMystery.doc or Proust of even the slimmer Speedboat or Pitch Dark by Renata Adler allow for a capaciousness that just doesn’t happen in painting, or sculpture. I think that’s what draws me to writing as an act. I think too it’s why I see therapy, and walking, and recovery as basically literary acts—and Kay Redfield Jamison, or Iain Sinclair, or Hazelden’s publishing wing are testaments to this. I think maybe the scope has changed a bit, where maximalism might now be attained in 200 pages as opposed to 2,000—or both—but I like the openness of writing. I’m working on two projects right now, and one requires me to simply write a bit every single day of this year, and the other is a slow-burn sort of children’s story I’m working on piecemeal with my wife, and both are comfortable things to find myself within, and I don’t feel as much pressure to be rushing through to publish something new. I’ve got two books set to come out in 2022, which no doubt helps, but it’s such a warming thing to be working within a project, or projects.

I really love, too, your characterization of bleach in the process, as well as possible connections to constraint-based writing practices, which I’m a huge fan of and advocate for. I think that these are the things we now have to impose on the writing act for the mere fact that they haven’t been utilized all that much. Even something as simple as writing while listening to the same piece of music only, which I did with Satie’s “Vexations,” felt like I was sort of accessing different parts of my brain that might’ve otherwise been quieted. I was set to teach a course on music and writing through 11:11 this March, but it wound up just being too much on top of my other teaching responsibilities, but it’s something I’m very excited to someday do because I’ve found constraint, and limit, and arbitrary structural decisions to be so generative. I love, too, the idea of leaving evidence between drafts of what’s come before, but clouding the process in some way, which is probably most apparent in the last piece in Works. I sometimes think that I’m failing miserably to do anything with writing of any significance, but it’s nice because I see the ways in which someone like Burroughs completely failed in his projects, but there remains that sense of permission he offers. Cut this thing to pieces, burn half of it up, try for something and fail, and maybe, hopefully, someone can pick up where you fucked up, or left off, and carry it somewhere significant after.

Ben Segal is the author of Pool Party Trap Loop, co-author of The Wes Letters, and co-editor of The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature. His short fiction has been published by Georgia ReviewTin HouseThe CollagistTarpaulin Sky, and Puerto del Sol, among others. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

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